Sunday, March 30, 2014

Maecharim, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand:  19 March - 26 March
Nan, Thailand:  27 March
Maecharim, Thailand:  28 March - 30 March

On the move again, after a full week in Chiang Mai.  Despite its full-on tourist-town status, it did have gorgeous gilded temples and spectacular night markets.  As much as I despise these tourist-track stops (the banana pancake trail, after Alex Garland and Lonely Planet) they draw us in.  I think the elephant-pants trail would be a better name.  All the backpackers where elephant pants, and everyone sells them.  I looked for a pair for a while, and then stopped when I was unable to find a single design that did not incorporate elephants.  It’s difficult to feel cavalier about elephants as decor when I know about the pajaan.

Nevertheless, some things are easier if we’re not the only farangs in town.  We shopped, ate farang food as a break—my halfway marker.

But now we head back in the wild.  Almost everyone (that we have met and I have read about) heads north from here, through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle and onto Huay Xai—or by bus direct to Luang Prabang, the next backpacker stop.  But we head east instead, into Nan province, the northern district that remains one of the least frequently visited areas of Thailand.  My parents are running a weeklong English camp at the school there, the school their time in Thailand helped build.

Although my visa soon expires, so we’ll only be able to stay a couple of days, I still wanted to see them and help in any way I can.  If I’m honest, though, I also had a selfish reason for wanting to come.  It’s been my failed intention all along to visit the sites where I lived as a child, and this is the first real chance I’ve had.  The apartments and complexes where I lived in Bangkok are being razed.

This house, though, is where we spent two quiet summers.  Living in a concrete house on mission grounds, bathing from the collected water dip bucket in the concrete bathroom with the drain on the floor, no electric after dark—where I read all of Sherlock Holmes.  Twice.

I feel like those precious summers meant more to me in some way, than other chunks of my childhood—inspiring me to live sustainably and ultralight as much as possible.  To cast off:  money, desire, other people’s expectations.  There, at this house, I collected an egg from a chicken in our backyard, and fried it, still warm.  Thence comes my love of farming as an avocation, my love of seeing where food comes from.

Also, maybe, my continued love of fried eggs.

So in coming here, to the mountains of Nan district, I want to come home.  Sometimes I’m this desperate wandering child, clutching any scrap of home around myself for warmth.  Maybe this is the closest thing I have to a home, the only building where I lived as a child that still exists.  A home where I still don’t belong.

The house is bedraggled and cobwebbed and padlocked, but it looks exactly right.  Smaller, maybe, as people always say on going back.  The backyard doesn’t possibly look big enough for chickens.

One night there Dad drives us up the rutted dirt road to the refugee camp that used to be here.  Lao refugees from the communists across the border.  My whole childhood I thought the people we moved here for were Cambodians, refugees from Pol Pot, but I never asked.  Most of the people here were Hmong, fighting with Americans against Lao guerrillas.  Many of them emigrated to the States.

The forest is hazy and brown, from all of the burning.  In hot season, the farmers burn the undergrowth.  I used to call this slash-and-burn agriculture, but there’s not so much slashing.  It just seems like a carbon-intensive and old-fashioned way to make biochar.

We see a bamboo hut, and speculate on its rental costs.  This is really the middle of nowhere.  No elephants in sight.

A photograph by Ron Jude -- read his interview here:  Set the woods on fire

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wax priest
I’ve been having a hard time writing about Thailand, in Thailand.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading, though.  Paul Theroux.  Erica Jenks Henry.  Graham Greene.  Emma Donoghue.  Somerset Maugham.  Here he is, explaining exactly the feeling I’ve been having in Buddhist temples and museums, since I was a little girl:
Rude paintings of scenes in the Master’s life hang from the eaves.  It is dark and solemn, but the Buddhas sit on their great lotus leaves in the gloaming like gods who have had their day, and now neglected, but indifferent to neglect, in their decaying grandeur continue to reflect on suffering.  The end of suffering, transitoriness and the eightfold path.  Their aloofness is almost terrifying.  You tread on tiptoe in order not to disturb their meditations and when you close behind you the carved doors and come out into the friendly day it is with a sigh of relief. —Maugham, Gentleman in the Parlor
I had that feeling again today, walking to the upstairs level of a teak museum.  At its center, on a pedestal, was a sculpted lifelike monk, with flesh-toned skin, maybe made of wax.  These statues have this austere serenity that makes me shiver.  I went back downstairs.

We’re in Chiang Mai, exploring temples and dodging tourists on bicycles.

In the last month our itinerary has been:

Khao Yai National Park, 8 Mar - 9 Mar
Pak Chong, 10 Mar
Udon Thani, 11 Mar
Nam Sohm, 12 Mar - 18 Mar
Udon Thani, 19 Mar
(overnight bus)
Chiang Mai, 20 Mar - today

So I’m a bit exhausted.  Or not.  It just feels like exhaustion, when I’m still on this elaborate bumming evasion.  When K. first asked me, ten years ago, what I wanted to be, I answered:  a bum.

And then today, in the museum where I was scared, we read about one of the forest monks, who spent 11 years “wandering.”  Just “wandering.”  We see them, sometimes, at the train station, these monks.  Toothless, in faded orange, leaving their stuffed brown bags on the bench to crouch and smoke cigarettes.  I love that just wandering alone can be some kind of virtue.  It’s a virtue I aspire to, and a virtue I tire of.

I tire of trying to write about it, too, when all my observations seem sour and Therouxian.  I love that Paul Salopek, one of my favorite five bloggers, says honest things like this, in a recent post:
I descended to camp in a foul mood. But as I came closer to the hissing gas stove, to the tarp spread on the sand, I heard my friends laughing. The presence of soldiers did not disturb them. They were telling stories, lying on their elbows, sipping tea. And within perhaps 30 steps, my mood reversed. My heart had turned over. These fellow travelers were my Saudi Arabia. Not the desert. I was glad we were together. Even our watchers. We all were journeying together, as we always do.
I love this story, I love his story, I love that he is traveling at the same time as I am, I love aspiring to be and write like him.  We are all journeying together, you at your desk, me in my barren hotel room, typing on our computers.  Just as humanity exoduses out of Africa, the journey that Salopek follows.  We met a Dutch guy the other night, going to an eight-day massage training in a hill tribe.  He said he loved backpackers.  He said we are a unique tribe.

Why do I twist my mouth at my own brethren?

Anyway.  These are the things I’m having a hard time writing about, although reading my sister’s compendium of fart jokes helps, and reading other writers who admit they fall behind, who admit that they are weak and have foul moods.  Good God do I have foul moods.  Travel is the worst kind of pressure cooker.

Salopek’s been falling behind, and he admits it:
There are more stories to tell. Older stories. They have been piling up at trailside for days. The final trek through Jordan. The looting of the sprawling necropolises there. The goat tunnel near Jericho. The young Bat Mitzvah girls dancing in leotards to hip-hop, like some misfired hallucination, in the sun-ironed wasteland outside of Bethlehem. The Israeli soldier-settler-painter who negotiated a “studio time truce” with Palestinian neighbors. And, of course, the first sight of Jerusalem—stone walls seen from a wooded hill, on a morning pale and clean as paper, as an eggshell, some 2.7 million footsteps away from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia.
I have more stories to tell, too, older stories.  Of course he has more excuses than I do, namely that he’s busy walking 21,000 miles, while fighting the flu.  And his stories are a lot more interesting than mine.  But he persists, and inspires me.

My sister, another of my favorite five bloggers, on her brilliant blog from (can it be?) seven years ago, the same that possesses the web’s most brilliant coprophiliac humor:
Now, before I decide I'm too tired to finish this blog and save it in some Word file where I will never end up finishing and posting it, because it will seem too embarrassing and awful when I reread it, I will just get this blasted thing up. Maybe one of these days I'll go back and post all those pieces of poop for you to get sick on.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nam Sohm, Thailand

12 March – 18 March

K. and new friends
We're in the heart of Eesan, or so I hope. A place where only farang fans come. The husbands of the ex-bar girls. Maybe that is too false-hearted of me. Too ugly.

Although also true. We told a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok that we were headed to Eesan to get away from farangs, and he said: but they're still there. “Fans” are there. “Fan” is the Thai word for intimate partner or spouse, a borrowed word from English. It's a fun word to use. Whenever I say that K. is my “fan” I feel like a celebrity.

So the town is chock-full of ancient decrepit boyfriends with cute perky Thai girls in braces. But I'm the only female traveler in town, and people seem shocked to see us—what brought you here? They ask. We don't get many tourists here. It only makes sense when I explain that my brother has a friend from here, and she told us to come visit her family. The only people that come here have a connection.

Which is exactly what we're looking for. Despite the fans, there is cultural wellbeing here, a sense of true authenticity. In short, it's the best week we've spent in all of Thailand (and that includes the week at the beach villa).

For one thing, the food. As always, the food. Prices are more or less standardized across Thailand, so a bowl of noodles or a simple dish over rice is always basically B30-40 ($1-1.2o), with the notable exception of tourist resorts and restaurants. But what is not standardized is quantity and quality. What B35 buys you at a city bus station, a half-full bowl of broth-heavy soup (albeit still delicious, arguably better than the best Thai food in the States), a bowl that leaves you needing to find a chicken skewer to fill up, is probably half of what B35 buys you here. Here, we go out for noodles and receive giant tureen-sized bowls chock-full of noodles and meat and bean sprouts and greens, more stew than soup. We almost can't finish them. Almost.

I'm actually able to have Thai conversations here, able to hang out with Thai people and cook and eat with them and do: what? Live a normal life, but in Thailand. People here are happy to see two goofy Americans drive by on a miniature bike (miniature only in comparison to our size), happy to smile and laugh and not try to overcharge us, thrilled at my attempts to speak Thai. They are thrilled just that we are here visiting—like the old Thailand, the Thailand from fifteen years ago, the Thailand I remember.

It's also a vague relief to have a break from these places where there are a ton of sights to see and attractions to visit (not that there aren't plenty of temples and waterfalls to visit here, too, that we're not getting to), because all the sightseeing begins to feel oppressive. Like a duty necessarily carried out, not something pleasurable. Nam Sohm just feels like normal Thai life in a normal Thai town, about the size of Mars Hill, the town where we go grocery shopping in Aroostook, and in the same pastoral landscape. The town is surrounded on all sides by rice farmers, the same way we're surrounded on all sides by potato farmers in Aroostook.

Somtahm with sehn, noodles, added
People here make sense to me. They live the same kind of life I do at “home.” I compare prices with them, finally able to communicate in something approaching comfort. Meat, dairy, and potatoes are unsurprisingly cheaper in the States. Things like shallots and limes—exotic ingredients in the States but necessities for Thai cooking—are cheaper here. We eat food that we've never eaten before, like green papaya salad (somtahm) with noodles mixed in, an all-in-one Lao dish that they only make in this province. It's delicious and spicy, a refreshing change from noodle soup and sticky rice.

One of the lizards we ate for dinner.  A bearded dragon, I think, like the ones they sell in American pet stores.  The boys in the neighborhood go fish for them, with bamboo poles and noosed ropes.
We eat lizards: skinned and dried in the sun and fried and then pounded in the mortar and pestle with herbs and spices into a kind of meat salad, like lahp. They tell us they eat snakes and scorpions and rats (not city rats, they explain with a shudder—ground rats from the forest—which is better if only mildly so). They'd eat them more, I guess, but they say they're harder to come by now, harder to find, that it's hard work to get them. Unlike the tourist areas of Thailand, where I feel wrung dry by touts, here I feel dazed by my own wealth. We go the market and buy 100 baht ($3) worth of chicken and pork and innard skewers to share, and the lady shoves in a whole handful extra. People behind us comment that we've already spent 100 baht, as if it's an unearthly extravagance. I feel guilty for my mild indulgences, my B10 yogurt drinks that are still half of what a big bag of market soup costs, enough to feed a whole family.

Lizards, cooked, as lahp
Here, on a budget, we live like kings. We found a teak house, three-bedroom, for B1500 a month. It doesn't seem possible, and yet it is. I dread going back to the reality of the tourist track with its crepe and falafel stands, all-you-can-drink specials, reggae bars, and dance clubs. I'm just happy. I'm trying to just let myself be happy, not obsess about how little we're doing or how little time we have left or much there is we could see.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Khao Yai National Park

8 March – 9 March

Our "tent"
This is the most half-assed camping we've ever done in our lives. And this where Thais are paying 1000 baht apiece for industrial-sized, industrial-strength, camouflage dome tents. We've been carrying around almost all of our Appalachian Trail camping gear for two months, an aluminum boy scout pan and alcohol stove, our Golite tarp and insect-repellant-impregnated sleeping bags and a sleeping pad. Finally, in Bangkok, we dumped almost all of the stuff in Bangkok, sick of the extra weight we'd probably never use. They have camping gear for rent at any National Park anyway, I rationalized. It never rains when it's not rainy season, K. rationalized.

We packed, instead, a tent-shaped mosquito net, which we'd been planning to hang inside our tarp as an additional layer of bug protection if we ever decided to camp. On the Pacific Crest Trail we barely used our tarp, there was so little rain. We just slept out in the open air, beneath the stars, guerilla-style, even at 10,000 feet, although everyone acted like we were crazy homeless people (and they were not so far from the truth). It's hot here, and there's no rain. So won't we be just as happy sleeping outside?

Our decision to finally come here to a National Park and camp was half-assed, too. We checked out of our hotel in Pak Chong, took the sohngtaeou to the park, and hitchhiked in, not exactly sure where we were going or if there was even camping available. As always, though, when we take things on faith they tend to work out magically and perfectly. We arrived at a sward of green grass, shaded by large trees, perfect for camping. There was no food, but we'd had the foresight of bringing fried rice in boxes (I've finally learned how to order Thai food to go).

I found a deserted clay barbecue, tossed over into a ditch, so even though we've been unable to buy alcohol for our pepsi-can stove (which K. is still carting around), and although fires aren't allowed, we'll be able to heat up water for ramen noodles. The only problem is embarrassment. When we hang our pitiful piece of mesh from a tree it is immediately clear to everyone just how clueless we are.

The big buck, and also visible are the National Park camoflaged tents
The rental tents are four-season and indestructible. The Thais that show up bring similar elaborate setups, indestructible, with mammoth plastic containers and free-standing foyers. Our tent is a completely transparent fabric curtain. We have no privacy and nowhere to change and no protection from the extremely wet dew. As we set up, we are stalked by an extremely unfriendly monkey, either a gibbon or a pink-tailed macaque.

Evil monkey, stalking our camp
He bares his teeth at us, makes attempts at our food. In the morning, after freezing all night—yes, camping in the mountains in Thailand with no waterproof barrier in a soaking wet bag-liner is cold—K. went to the bathroom, leaving me alone to protect our gear from the monkey with a big stick. I wasn't too worried, till he jumped to the tree from which our “tent” hangs. He's fascinated by us, somehow, maybe because he can see inside our tent, maybe because it hangs from a tree, one of his trees. He lifted the string from the tree and flicked. I waved my stick, ineffectively. He flicked the string again, and boom, our tent collapsed around me in my sleeping bag, shrouding me.

So we repacked everything in our bags and moved to the other side of the campground, where hopefully there are fewer, or at least less interested, monkeys.

I'm rather impressed by how wild everything is, how remote this feels, how natural, even though we're in a highly ranked attraction and Thailand's most-visited National Park. The services are well-kept and impressive, as is the rental gear. But if you squint, you could be in the middle of nowhere. I didn't expect so much wildness, so many animals. There have been monkeys and deer roaming the campground since we got here, something I don't remember at all from when I was a kid. Wild animals were few and far between then. Maybe it's a just testament to preservation, that whatever steps they've taken here have paid off in the last preservation.

Even if it means we quake in fear at the bared-teeth monkeys. I guess I understand the sturdy house-like tents, just meaning that the Thais think we're even crazier than I thought they would. Sometimes I crave the “crazy farang” label. It gives us an excuse for all of the insane things we do, gives us a refuge, even though we're crazy enough that most farangs would find us so.

Late the first night, a bit dazed from staring into the mini-barbecue fire, I walk to get water by myself. It's dusk, and there aren't many people at the campground. As I walk, I see shadows moving, off to my left. I stop and they stop. I think it must be an optical illusion, a trick of my imagination, light from the bathrooms striping my vision, but when I move again they move, too. They're small black humped animals, moving close to the ground but smoothly.

I chicken out and go back to our “camp,” back to the fire, hoping I'm not crazy. I say they looked like badgers or turtles, maybe skunks? But there are no skunks in Thailand. K. scoffs. How could something look like both a turtle and a rodent?

We go for a hike the second day to a waterfall and go swimming (breaking prohibition #82 given to us by our travel doctor: no swimming in fresh water!), leaving our gear at the head office. We don't get fed on by leeches or worms. We bask in the sun. I swear I've been here before, maybe even to this same waterfall, decades ago.

That night, K. sees my mystery animals, too, some kind of hedgehog or porcupine, humped black below with white quills on top, quills that graze the ground and seem to lift as we stare at them. So I'm not crazy. Just another brush with wildlife. (No photographs, unfortunately.)

The morning we leave, we have another crazy encounter. We're basking in the sun, all packed up, in no hurry to leave. I start videoing the deer, taking photographs of them, two young bucks with shaggy shedding fur. Then another one, a bigger older buck, comes forward, out of the woods. This is his turf; we've seen him already.

Unbelievably, almost in slow motion, so slowly that it doesn't quite seem possible, the old buck locks horn with the bigger younger one. The third buck gets out of the way. At first I think they're playing, helping each other shed. But no. It's slow as they grapple, both trying to aim the points of their horns in the other's eye. Most of the fight is impassive, immobile, as they stay locked, but then one gains purchase and aims at the other's exposed neck, and I note bloody fly-infested wounds from previous battles. As the battle increases in intensity, I start hearing squeaks of grief, of pain coming from the deer. It's shocking, in such a civilized campground. I have visions of watching a deer bleed out. But finally the younger deer surrenders and turns tail. The older one finds a tree and collapses against it, exhausted, nursing his wounds.

Bucks fighting, a lot more violent than it looks
As we leave, I see the younger deer come up again and challenge, and the fight begins again. We want to leave nature to itself, preserved, but it's always shocking in its violence. Its bloodiness. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

We hitch out, and I use my broken Thai to say that we're going all the way back to Pak Chong. We sit in the bed of a truck with a kid and a pregnant girl and two guys drinking beer and homemade whiskey, all out for the day to “pai teou,” to go and have a good time. We (and our backpacks) barely fit in the back of the truck with them, but they're so sweet and they're going all the way to Pak Chong, too. They take us as far as they can, stopping at the temple on the way to the park gate, and I go in with the driver, my first time at a Buddhist temple with an actual Buddhist, a temple that's not a tourist attraction but a working temple.

The pavilion is crowded with shoeless Thais burning incense and praying. I go closer to get a glimpse inside, and am shocked to see that the gilt statues of priests inside are all wearing gaudy, chintzy cowboy hats. Of all things. I don't have the nerve to go inside to see them close-up, nor to take a picture.

I ask, when we're tucked back into the truckbed, as well as I can: what's with the cowboy hats? My friend, the girl, when she understands says: they wear cowboy hats around here. As if that explains it.

This is what I love about Thailand, about travel, how it constantly shocks you with how inexplicably alien it is.

They drop us off less than a half-mile from our hotel, in the care of a barbecued-pork street vendor, so that the sohngtaeou into town doesn't charge us more than 10 baht (30 cents) to take us the rest of the way. How kind they are to us, and how good it feels to be veering away from the tourist trail, if only for this, these brief, thwarted connections with genuine, good-hearted Thai people.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Pak Chong, Thailand

Khao Yai National Park

When I arrived in Pak Chong, I was headed for the woods. Even though I only have a mosquito net to camp in. These are the relics of our ancestry as ultralight hikers—my GoLite backpack, which still reeks of thru-hiker stink, a sleeping pad as a frame, an alcohol stove stuffed into an aluminum pan. After the Appalachian Trail, we always know we can camp. Always walk.

Sometimes when the tuk-tuk drivers yell at me: you can't walk! It's too far!

I feel like saying: I walked 3000 miles! It's not too far!

That's something I'm capable of saying in Thai, although I'd have to convert to kilometers. So we're headed to Khao Yai National Park, home of nature trails and wild elephants. It's also another revisiting of a place from my childhood, the park where we used to come for holiday, renting a cabin with my best friend's family for a week during Christmas and hiking the “lambak” (difficult—doesn't it just sound difficult? I though that word was an English one for years) trails to waterfalls. We have pictures from the park, of us stripped of our shoes, wading in fresh-water streams (something my travel doctor told me never, never to do before I left). In one, I've laid out my socks to dry and they are completely covered in butterflies, swarming to drink up the moisture.

As we move farther north in Thailand I'm beginning to think my previous complaints about the busyness of the tourist trail are ridiculous. We bought our train ticket directly from Ayutthaya to Pak Chong, and we (as the last time) were the only farangs on the train. All of the rest of the Ayutthaya folk crossed the train tracks, in their tank tops, with giant suitcases, and caught the train back to Bangkok. We went east instead, and when we arrived in Pak Chong, there were only two other farangs on the platform.

I've been constantly amused at how tourists seem to hate each other. In the south, travelers wouldn't even meet each others' eyes. Thais were more friendly than fellow westerners, all of whom were in denial about other westerners being in their remote paradise. Here, though, as we're once again few, we're on the same side. A French couple at the station explained to us how to catch the sohngtaeou to the National Park, where the cheap hotel in town was, how much things costs.

It's ridiculous how far off the beaten track we are without even trying. Khao Yai National Park is number seven on Lonely Planet's list of Thailand's top attractions. And I feel like we're virtually alone, Thailand as it was fifteen years ago. Tonight we are staying at one of the Thai hotels I love so much, hanging out with salesman and truck drivers from Bangkok on the road.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya palace grounds at dusk

2 March - 6 March 

We took the train directly from Nakhon Chai Si, a local bus to a commuter stop, and all the way to Ayutthaya effortlessly. We crossed on the ferry to the island and were met at the boat by PU—pee-you--proprietor of the PU Hotel. We had agreed to splurge for a nicer room, maybe one with hot water and cable, and so we paid a little bit extra because she promised a swimming pool. After checking in we found out that the wall-mounted fan didn't work, the floor fan didn't rotate, and the swimming pool was an extra 50B per person, when I'd specifically asked if it was extra during check-in.

Of course I never fight these things. I just take them and speak with my feet, by walking down the street to a deluxe place that still keeps shared-bathroom fan rooms for the backpackers. I need to make a rule to only stay in teak houses from now on. The problem is I also love the small-town concrete hotels designed for Thais, with condoms for sale in the lobby and squat toilets. But in those rooms the fans are industrial strength and always work.

Decor at a farang bar
So in Ayutthaya we were away from real Thailand and back to Disneyland—with a row of piano bars and jazz clubs in front of a row of guesthouses. Ayutthaya is a small town turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Georgetown, in Malaysia, and these cities have a way of growing on you despite their flaws. I understand why they are chosen, although after they are chosen their character changes into something strange and different. In this place elephants are force-marched down the street in orange regalia for the amusement of package tourists. Twenty-year-olds dance macarena in the streets. Elderly Thai men play Billy Joel songs in bad English at top volume late into the night. In a town sacred to Thais, the original home of the ancient capital, the fabled fourteenth-century city.

I am having a lot of problems with elephant rides after reading how they are habitually tortured into submission.
We wandered the white-hot streets at noon, dodging tuk-tuk touts and finding our way to the green center of the city, filled with shady parks and ruined temples. We're becoming better and better at figuring out our way around the tourists, though, and it's shocking to me how easy it can be to get away from the crowds. On our first day we found our way into the depths of a park surrounded by ruins, and sat on the grass in the shade. There were no people around. We could have been alone. And this in the number-two site recommended by Lonely Planet in all of Thailand.

So I complain about all of the tourists, and how Thailand is ruined, but it's really not true. It may be true in some areas, but there are always secret hiding places, and there will continue to be. As there are in the urban US, as there are anywhere. The secret is in believing they are there and finding them. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “And for all of this, nature is never spent—there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” True that.

Ruined temples and birds

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

The Bangkok demonstration site.  Yes, we were told to stay away.  And no, we did not.
19 February – 1 March

You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people's privacy--being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler's personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological.  
--Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
This is exactly how I'm feeling lately. Not that I don't still love the grit and chaos of travel, but more I feel its aimlessness, as if I don't know exactly what direction I'm supposed to be moving. We rested in Bangkok for more than a week because, well, Bangkok feels like home. Especially Siyan, our adopted neighborhood, home of Bluefin Guesthouse—which I'm sure doesn't need any more business, or I don't know if I want it to have any more business because it'll lose that magical quality it still possesses.

Three bowls of beef guaytaeou in Siyan

Siyan is an intersection of two roads, Nakhon Chai Si and Samsen, and the site of a vigorous and thriving day and night market, unpopulated by farangs. (Except for us.) When we arrived in Bangkok the first time, I asked in broken Thai: where's the market? I was expecting something grander, maybe, a tented pavilion with arches. Instead the market's laid out on the street, with almost anything one could want. Plastic utensils, smartphones, Thai flags, clothing, noodles in any incarnation. We spent most of the week hopping from one noodle cart to the next. One that just did beef—thin slices of rare meat just immersed in broth. Another with chicken—floating whole chicken legs and sliced breast.

Thailand is beginning to lose its strangeness. I begin to callous to its beauty, the way I do to a photograph hung on the wall. This afternoon I even went through my photographs of Maine, posted some I'd never bothered to before. It's a place that looks so alien and cold, so unfamiliar now. I'm not as stunned and grateful to be here anymore, and instead I just want to settle in, find a place where I can make friends, talk to the same people every day. Instead we push ourselves forward, out of the nest again, onto the next destination, at least for a little while more.

I loved Bangkok. I hated to leave. It'd take me a full year to eat myself up one side of that street and down the other, and in the meantime I'd get educations in Thai, food writing, cuisine, and how to take market photographs (a skill I have barely begun to attempt). It's terrifying asking people if you can take their picture. More and more I feel like true travel is to move, to stay in one place until I'm no longer a “farang,” just that weird American who lives down the block. But instead we move on.